When I conceived the idea of conducting food tours back in 2012, it was as simple as taking people to the restaurants I loved. It was not before long that lengthy legislation contorted the dreamy gaze on my soon-to-be entrepreneur’s face into yawning at various government offices. Every additional form I had to fill helped me update my go-getter, reach-for-the-stars life motto to what it really needed to be: yalla, come back tomorrow.
But there was a blessing in this Year of Tomorrows. As I waited around for the licenses to come through, I started to read about food indiscriminately – not on blogs, but in books. The life-changing one was A Day of Honey by Annia Ciezaldo, an American journalist who found herself on a honeymoon in Iraq after her husband was posted as a reporter in Baghdad in 2003. Contrary to the typical book of war, Annia unravels stories of food in a way that provides cultural richness to the people stranded in sensitive, politically charged contexts. It opened my eyes to what my tours really needed to be – not just about eating, but about using food to explore cultures, often cultures in conflict, that have made Dubai their home through the decades. The book gave my misty-eyed food tour dream a renewed purpose, because as Annia writes, ‘even the most ordinary dinner tells manifold stories of history, economics, and culture. You can experience a country and a people through its food in a way that you can’t through, say, its news broadcasts’.
This is why I felt an instant connection with #CookforSYRIA, an international fundraising programme for the Syrian humanitarian crisis that was launched in October 2016 by Clerkenwell Boy, an award-winning Instagrammer, and Serena Guen, founder and CEO of Suitcase Magazine. They curated a hundred Syrian-inspired recipes donated by chefs from around the world, including Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Jamie Oliver, Ella Mills (better known as Deliciously Ella) and our very own Dubai-based Dalia Dogmoch Soubra.
Dalia claims to be a culinary nomad who has lived across London, Paris and New York, but she has never forgotten the pine nut and Aleppo pepper genes inherited from her Syrian parents. The recipes she contributed to #CookforSYRIA have been passed down from her grandmother to her mother to her; she now recreates them for her children.
Dalia describes the initiative as one that aims to give people a way of taking part because the world needs to ‘not just pray for those in need, but actually do something to help them.’ Every dollar, pound or dirham raised by selling the cookbook is directly channelled to UNICEF’s Syrian Children’s Aid Fund. ‘Everybody – everybody – can help Syrian children through the #cookforSYRIA initiative,’ says Dalia.
Even though I was in full agreement with anything Dalia could possibly have had to say to me even before our interview had started – she had given me the most aromatic thyme-infused olive oil and set down a plate of chocolate-dipped cookies – I still played the devil’s advocate requisite of my interviewer’s role: Why food? Why not give money to UNICEF directly?
‘I am biased,’ admitted Dalia, ‘but I think that people who know Arabic food and who know Middle Eastern food know that Syrians are extremely well-known for a very rich, diverse and very old cuisine… and it’s always been such a big part of their culture. With what’s happening in Syria, this is getting lost between the lines. I think that food and Syria go hand in hand.’
Unlike the Lebanese that are known for blending their hummus all around the world, Syrians have historically set their tables within their own country rather than abroad. Their cuisine still falls in the realm of the home kitchen. It is wholesome, hearty and rustic, but lesser-known globally and unaccustomed to commercial kitchens. Dubai offers proof of this culinary statistic, with its glut of Lebanese restaurants yet a mere handful of dedicated Syrian restaurants that boast classic dishes like fattet, which crumbles crispy pita bread into pools of yogurt, tomato broth, pine nuts, and often eggplant or chicken; ravioli-like shish barak cooked in warm yogurt; and a variety of burgul wheat kibbeh, stuffed with chard and pomegranate seeds or lamb and pine nuts.
Without more Syrian restaurants and cookbooks to preserve its dishes, the deep-rooted food culture is at great risk of being devoured by the beast of war (read what chef Mohammad Orfali, an Aleppian born and raised, had to say about preserving the cuisine). Books like #CookforSYRIA play a small but significant role in safeguarding some of the traditional flavours of the Syrian kitchen, born out of ingredients like fragrant and mild Aleppo chilli peppers, bulgur wheat, orange blossom water, the thyme-based za’atar blend, pomegranate seeds and pine nuts, to name a few.
Beyond culinary preservation, initiatives like #CookforSYRIA shift the narrative of conflict beyond the stereotypical view of victims to that of humans – like you and I – with traditions, with history, and with deep dignity. They help us accept a culture in its rich entirety, not only sympathize with its broken face during the conflict. They humanize a people whose war-torn images are so graphic that you can never imagine them in your own backyard, in the middle of a routine grocery run or your commute to work. Once the television is turned off, it is easier to forget – because there is nothing normal about the Syrian situation that we can relate to in our everyday lives.
As Annia writes, ‘If you want to understand war, you have to understand everyday life first.’ And cooking is one of the most powerful ways to understand that everyday life. By rekindling the flavours of a culture in your kitchen, you are remembering them in a way that restores identity and pride to its people. As Dalia aptly frames it: ‘There are two things Syrians are known for: their food, and their pride.’
As I stuffed my minced meat mixture into five tender and shrivelled baby eggplants, I quickly skimmed over the next step of Dalia’s fattet makdous recipe on a now tomato-splattered page of my #CookforSYRIA book. First was a layer of toasted pita, followed by yogurt whisked with tahina and lemon juice, and then my slow-simmered tomato and onion gravy. I snuggled the eggplants into the pools of sauce as artistically as the dish styled in the book, and then did the unthinkable by replacing the required parley garnish with the only herb not wilted in my fridge: coriander. The sins of herb substitution haunted me for a mere second, before it was quickly forgotten amidst layers of flavour and texture: creamy yogurt against crispy bread, crumbly lamb mince against supple eggplant, fragrant cinnamon against nutty tahina.
I have never been knowledgeable or eloquent when it comes to politics, and fail to form an opinion for fear of missing a critical side of the story, for sounding misinformed, or for inviting backlash. Even after a self-imposed silence during the inevitable political debate at social gatherings, I always feel somewhat defeated and helpless. Politics is complicated, but the kitchen is a place I understand and return to everyday, three times a day, if not more.
And so even though my fattet makdous feels like a very small, guiltily self-indulgent way of contributing to the children of the conflict, I take assurance in Annia’s words: ‘There are many ways to save a civilization. One of the simplest is with food.’
#CookforSYRIA is sold on Amazon and The Book Depository, which offers free delivery worldwide.